Long Prison Sentences Don't Solve Problems. Here's Our Federal Court's New Solution

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Empty cells could be a good thing, says a federal judge - IMAGE VIA
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  • Empty cells could be a good thing, says a federal judge

US District Judge Audrey Fleissig has known for years that long prison sentences don't solve a criminal offender's problems.

"They're expected to come out and have a better life than they had before they were in prison for 10-15 years," she says. "Whatever was going on in their life before they were imprisoned is probably at least as bad now; their family structure has probably been totally decimated, if it wasn't before."

In addition, long sentences cost money: $28,893 per federal inmate per year, according to a 2011 statistic in the Federal Register.

So last March, Fleissig, along with her colleague Judge E. Richard Webber and several others who work in the Eastern District of Missouri's criminal court launched an alternative: the Sentencing Alternatives for Improving Lives program, a.k.a. SAIL.

SAIL looks like this: Anyone charged with a federal offense -- whether related to fraud, firearms, drugs, etc. -- would first plead guilty. They then sign a contract pledging to not commit any more crimes and to follow SAIL rules, which include agreeing to drug tests, house visits and counseling sessions with Pretrial Services officers and the SAIL team.

Instead of going to prison, the offender spends a year in SAIL -- not just to avoid getting locked up, but also to genuinely improve their lives.

Participants receive a detailed handbook outlining the expectations, phases, and various people available to help out, including pretrial services officers; Judge Webber and Judge Fleissig; two assistant U.S. attorneys, and two assistant federal public defenders.

The program has also enlisted the help of Gateway Legal Services, St. Louis University and Washington University Law School clinics, in case participants need a hand resolving warrants and other legal issues.

Participants must complete three phases to pass the program, remove their guilty plea and have their charges dismissed. If they fail, they will spend time behind bars.

"They have a tremendous incentive," says Judge Fleissig.

Judge Fleissig first heard about post-plea diversion programs when she attended a national judges program in 2014.

Another judge at the conference asked if any district had a post-plea diversion program. No one spoke up and everyone went on with their other discussions, she explains. This question struck a note with Judge Fleissig. She brought the idea back to the Eastern District of Missouri.

Thomas F. Eagleton United States Courthouse downtown - IMAGE VIA
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  • Thomas F. Eagleton United States Courthouse downtown

Fleissig was aware of the several other reentry courts in the Eastern District, but she still felt something was lacking. She wanted to find a solution for more serious offenders.

Judge Fleissig spent months meeting with Judge E. Richard Webber, the Pretrial Services office, the U.S. Attorney's office, and the Federal Public Defenders office, all of whom wanted to help with the program.

They launched SAIL last March. It consists of several phases.

Phase One is the assessment and intensive supervision phase, which takes a minimum of two months to complete. In this phase, participants must meet with the SAIL team weekly, begin to identify problems and obstacles in their lives, set personal goals, meet with the Pretrial Services office weekly, begin engaging in weekly Moral Reconation Therapy (MRT), comply with random drug tests and house visits, begin a job search, community service or schooling program, among other things.

"We assign them tasks at every session, and we need to hear from them at the next session how did they do on their tasks and how did their week go," she explains. "And they're going to get more tasks to do, and a reward or perhaps a sanction based upon how well they performed those tasks. So the feedback in immediate."

As participants progress from Phase One, each phase allows the participant more and more responsibility and independence.

Phase Two is primary treatment and learning stability with SAIL support. This phase takes a minimum of six months and participants will meet with the SAIL team twice monthly, meet with Pretrail Services every other week, remain fully engaged in counseling, continue with MRT, continue with random drug tests and house visits, continue developing an ongoing support network, among other things.

Phase Three is healthy life maintenance and beginning transition to community support, which takes a minimum of four months. This phase requires even less meetings with the SAIL team and Pretrail Services, and allows the individual more independence and responsibility of their own life.

The entire program will take a minimum of one year to complete. So far, SAIL has taken on eight participants, but is ready to take on more since many of the first eight participants have already graduated into Phase Two.

Although the program has a broad base, there are some people who are excluded from the program; people with immigration offenses, violent offenders, non-local offenders, offenders with state probation charges, and sex offenders.

"The way we designed the program was to have a focus on individuals who, without this program, are likely to receive prison sentences, some of them significant prison sentences, who we believe have some kind of problem or problems in their lives that have contributed to them being in the criminal justice system, and [who have] problems we believe we can address through an intensive supervision and intervention program," she explains.

Judge Fleissig emphasizes that this program is not for the weak-willed. "The people have to be willing to do that kind of work, because it's beyond what would be required of them if they were on probation."

Since each participant is dealing with very different personal problems, the SAIL team received training from St. Louis University on such things as the effects of trauma and how it can manifest itself, and motivational interviewing.

Judge Fleissig emphasizes the vast array of problems that participants face.

"What if their problem is a mental health problem? What if instead they just fell on really hard times at some point in their life? Or what if there's been a failure to launch?" she says. "Or maybe they've been abused and they've become very dependent upon somebody who's manufacturing methamphetamine, and they've been running around trying to help them manufacture methamphetamine because they're very dependent on that person. There are so many different scenarios that can cause someone to land in the criminal justice system."

Although SAIL is only a few months old, Judge Fleissig is already looking for a better way to assess its impact.

"I think we need more than anecdotal evidence to properly assess this program. If we can get it and if it works like I think it does, then it's much easier to make the case to other districts, and to the public," she explains.

Out of the 94 Federal districts in the United States, 22 of them will have their own Post-Plea diversion programs by the end of the year, Fleissig says.

"It can work," she continued. "I believe that most people, if given the right support, services, and moral support, then they can change their lives, I believe that to be true," she says. "Locking up people forever, letting them out with minimal supports doesn't work. And we can't afford it anymore, prisons are overcrowded, we simply cannot afford it anymore."

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